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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Steam Engine Time

Back in early November of last year NASA and DARPA announced that they were quietly moving forward with Project Orion, the "100-year starship" first designed in the late 1950's and then scrapped due to Cold War politics. At that time I wrote what turned out to be only the first in a large number of posts about Orion. In the course of researching that post I went, among many other places, to Wikipedia. At the time they had a very short article on Orion, with very little real information.

This afternoon I started researching Orion for yet another upcoming post. I'm planning to write a bit about what the voyage planning and living conditions would be like on an 88-year trip to Alpha Centauri. I needed to get dimensions of the payload space to begin planning how that could be parsed out among 1000 colonists and everything they would need to survive that long, and how that would then transition to colonizing a world without oxygen, four light years away from the nearest COSTCO.

So, shamelessly, I went back to Wikipedia. I was shocked and pleased to find that the current article on Orion had about five times as much information as had been there in November.

I'm also seeing references to Orion cropping up in some unusual places. Non-science-y places. It seems like a general awareness of the Orion Project is slowly creeping into our collective conscious. I think when people learn that we've had the technology to build a ship to the nearest stars since the Eisenhower administration, but that we haven't actually bothered to do so, they're pretty appalled. That's good. It's reasonably appalling.

The fact that Orion planning has survived the DARPA budget cuts so far, in this year of mindless runaway budget disemboweling, is very telling.

The steam engine was actually first invented by Hero of Alexandria in the 1st century CE, but nothing was really done with it until the late 1700s, when suddenly inventors all around the world, independently of each other, began inventing and applying steam engines. Planet earth had finally reached "steam engine time", and so the world steam-engined.

We may have reached whatever critical mass is necessary to start finally building a nuclear pulsed-fission ship to the stars. It's Orion time.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Barsoom, again.

So far we've discussed our options for permanent human colonies within the solar system, and we've examined the current state of interstellar travel and the stars we can reasonably hope reach within a human lifetime. Our search for a home outside of the solar system has been narrowed, essentially, to Alpha Centauri. We have established the possibility (without assigning probability) of habitable worlds there.

We have the technology, right now, to launch a colonial expedition to Alpha Centauri. But we cannot in good conscience do so until we have some idea that they will find a suitable world once they get there.

Our parameters for what constitutes a "suitable world" narrow considerably when we are talking about an 88 year one-way trip.

The world must be well within the habitable zone of the star, and there should be plenty of liquid water on the surface. The size and gravity of the planet should be very similar to earth's. The atmosphere should be dense enough for a person to be able to walk around in it without protection. The atmosphere should not be corrosive or toxic. A person should be able to walk around comfortably wearing no more equipment than a respirator and an oxygen source.

The atmosphere should not, however, contain oxygen. Because oxygen would mean that the planet had already been colonized.

The bottom line is this. Any conceivable candidate for human settlement around the stars of Alpha Centauri needs to be a helluva lot more hospitable than Mars. Because Mars is much, much closer.

The good news is that we currently have the technology, and soon will have the ability, to determine if any earth-sized planets exist within the habitable zones of Alpha Centauri. The NASA mission (SIM, the Space Interferometry Mission) to do so was officially defunded in 2010, so it will be up to other countries or private interests to continue this research. Hopefully Europe, India, Russia or China will take the lead in the Space Race and keep the ball rolling. The United States, unfortunately, seems to have thrown in the towel. But this is a venture "for all mankind", so it really doesn't matter who does the work, so long as the work gets done.

If earth-sized planets are found within any of the habitable zones of Alpha Centauri, the next step is to determine, from here, what the atmospheric composition and hydrography of the world is, and generally learn as much as we can from earth or earth-orbit before beginning the process of sending people there. Amazingly enough, it is probably possible, right now, to build a space-hypertelescope which would give us as much information about a planet around Alpha Centauri as Giovanni Schiaparelli's telescope gave him about Mars.

The telescope is currently called the Exo-Earth Imager (EEI). It consists of multiple orbital mirrors focused into a single telescope, and could presumably be improved upon once it was operational by adding more mirrors. From 10 light years away (more than twice the distance to Alpha Centauri), earth would look like this:

From such imagery we could make some pretty good assumptions about a planet. Or, like Schiaparelli and Percival Lowell, we could make some really bad assumptions. But it's a starting place.

Monday, March 28, 2011

2 dead, 8 injured as sailboat sinks off San Diego Bay

Wow. Who would have guessed that a 25' sailboat was too small to carry ten people?

And the kids survived, so they can't even get a Darwin Award for their efforts.

Ten people. Really. Stability and trim, kiddies; it's not rocket science.


SAN DIEGO (AP) — Ten people were thrown into the waters of San Diego Bay Sunday when their sailboat capsized, leaving two men drowned and eight people injured, authorities said.

The boat flipped over for reasons that remained unclear and then sank near Shelter Island shortly after 5 p.m., San Diego Fire-Rescue spokesman Maurice Luque said.

Harbor police pulled all 10 from the water and took them to a boat dock where some 60 firefighters and paramedics were waiting. Two men in their 50s or 60s were declared dead at the scene and the other eight were taken to local hospitals. Two children were released from the hospital after being treated briefly.

Luque said none of the injuries was life-threatening or critical.

Though just 10 people were reported to be aboard, divers searched the sunken wreckage for any additional victims.

"We are confident that everyone is accounted for," Luque said.

One woman was being treated in intensive care at UCSD Medical Center for hypothermia, said Marguerite Elicone, a spokeswoman for the Port of San Diego, which includes the Harbor Police.

Most of those on board were members of an Asian family, and investigators had to bring in translators to speak to them, Luque said. He did not know what language they spoke. No victims' names were immediately released.

Harbor Police officers were at the 25-foot boat within five minutes after a Navy vessel reported the boat capsized, Elicone said.

"They were pulling people out of the water. There were also civilians assisting in pulling people out of the water," she said.

No other vessels were involved, Elicone said. There were several witnesses but the spokeswoman said she didn't know what they saw.

Harbor police were leading the investigation into the cause. The U.S. Coast Guard also responded to the scene.

Phone messages left for the Coast Guard were not immediately returned.

Sunday, March 27, 2011


So far we've looked at all three of the Alpha Centauri stars individually for potential habitable planets. There are, however, other possible planetary orbits in a binary or trinary star system.

I remember the first time I read the opening words of the original Star Wars:

It was a vast, shining globe and it cast a light of lambent topaz into space -- but it was not a sun. Thus, the planet had fooled men for a long time. Not until entering close orbit around it did its discoverers realize that this was a world in a binary system and not a third sun itself.

Immediately I thought of Alpha Centauri, and the possibility that Proxima was really a planet like Tatooine (yes, I was that 12-year-old). Proxima isn't a planet. But it is possible for a planet to orbit both stars of a binary system.

Here is what we see most typically:

If the two stars in a binary system are less than three astronomical units apart, the planetary disk tends to form around both of the stars, like Tatooine. If the stars are separated by greater than fifty astronomical units then the planetary disks form around the individual stars. Between three and fifty AU a planetary disk is less likely to form.

The distance between Alphas Centauri A and B is between 11 and 36 AU, averaging 24 AU. This would seem to indicate that a planetary disk around either star is unlikely, however we believe there happen to be planetary disks around both A and B.

A "Tatooine-like" orbit around both stars would take the planet far outside of the habitable zone; it would be rather more like Hoth than Tatooine, except that humans truly could not live there.

All that said, a world around either of the two major stars of Alpha Centauri would, occasionally, be afforded really spectacular twin sunsets.

Stupid Star Wars trivia: The planet Tatooine is never actually named that at any point in the first movie (what eventually became Episode IV of the series). During the filming it was called Utapau, which name was ultimately given to one of the worlds in Episode III.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Compassion, America?

The death toll from Japan's 11 March earthquake and tsunami officially surpassed 10,000 lives yesterday. More than 17,440 people are listed as missing, and 2,775 as injured. Hundreds of thousands remain homeless. And the Fukushima reactor situation continues to degrade toward an accident on par with Chernobyl.

The US media (and apparently a substantial number of US citizens), meanwhile, is fixated on the possible threat of radiation from Fukushima somehow impacting the US west coast. Really.

The highest radiation levels seen in the US since the earthquake have been recorded in San Francisco. As of Wednesday the radiation levels above baseline there were as follows. In picocuries per meter cubed.

Cesium-137: 0.0013
Tellurium-132: 0.0075
Iodine-132: 0.0066
Iodine-131: 0.068

Here in Seattle we're seeing:

Cesium-137: 0.00045
Tellurium-132: 0.0034
Iodine-132: 0.0029
Iodine-131: 0.013

Picocuries. That's right, the west coast of the United States is freaking out over about the same level of radiation they might receive if their house or apartment had a single brick sitting across the street from it. For one day.

Get a grip, America. People in Japan, tens of thousands of them, are dead or dying. By the end of this the death toll will likely be about that of the first day of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. Which, incidentally, deposited rather more radioactive fallout on the US than the worst-case scenario at Fukushima possibly could. Let's focus on the real problems in Japan instead of this media-created and selfish fear-mongering. A little human decency goes a long way.

Here's the gross-count gamma rate for San Francisco as of today, as monitored by the EPA:

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Pandora and the Comet Empire

Our third and final candidate in the Alpha Centauri star system is Alpha Centauri B, a K1-class orange dwarf star just a bit smaller than our sun. It also happens to be the star of the moon Pandora in James Cameron's movie Avatar.

Alpha Centauri B is slightly less "sunlike" than Alpha Centauri A. However, computer modeling of accretion patterns from the protoplanetary disks results in an earth-sized rocky planet neatly inside the liquid-water habitable zone of Alpha Centauri B on more modeling runs than not. This is not true of Alpha Centauri A, although it is certainly possible that a planet from another orbit might have been captured into a habitable zone orbit of A.

The first salient question which arises is whether or not a planet within, say, 50% of earth's mass in either direction, actually exists in the habitable zone of Alpha Centauri A or B (or Proxima, for that matter).

We don't know if any such planets exist, yet. We do know what does not exist. There do not appear to be any planets in the Alpha Centauri system larger than five times the earth's mass. No gas giants like Jupiter or Saturn, no ice giants like Uranus and Neptune, around any of the three Alpha Centauri stars. Sorry, Mr Cameron. At the very least, the absence of any giant planets in the system means that the orbits within the habitable zones of each of the three stars are available for earth-sized rocky planets, should they happen to exist.

One possibility that we cannot discount yet is that there are no planets in the Alpha Centauri system at all. Given that each of the three stars are distant enough from each other to have had independent protoplanetary disks, and given the high metallicity of each of the three stars ("metal", to an astronomer, is any element heavier than hydrogen or helium), the simple law of averages would seem to indicate that there are planets around at least one of the Alpha Centauri stars, if not all three. But right now we don't know that for sure, because we do not yet have the means of detecting planets as small as we're hoping to find. NASA had a mission well underway to build and launch an interferometry telescope called SIM for specifically this purpose, but it's funding was cut in 2008 and the program was canceled. Hopefully Russia, China, India, the European Union or some private interest will pick up the ball that the United States has dropped and run with it, because a lot of decision making is going to depend on that information.

But, the best computer modeling we currently have for planetary accretion shows that earth-like planets should have formed around Alpha Centauri B, and Jupiter-like and Neptune-like planets should not have. Observation seems to confirm the modeling regarding giant planets; whether it will also confirm the modeling regarding small, rocky planets, only time will tell. Here is the research of Ji-Wei Xie, Ji-Lin Zhou, and Jian Ge of Nanjing University and University of Florida at Gainesville, respectively, regarding planetary accretion around Alpha Centauri B:

Given that it is possible for earth-sized worlds to exists within the habitable zone of Alpha Centauri B, the next question is, "how habitable"?

Alpha Centauri A and Proxima would likely serve the function of clearing the majority of asteroids and comets out of the way, so that a world around Alpha Centauri B would not be constantly pummeled. On the other hand, at least some of earth's water came from comets, so some cometary activity is probably useful. As it stands, we really don't know how most of the water on earth (or Europa or Enceladus or Mars or...) got there, so a better understanding of the role of cometary hydration would go a long way toward understanding how the unique trinary gravitational profile of the Alpha Centauri system is going to affect the hydrographic percentage of its worlds.

New technology is needed to help us image the Alpha Centauri system before sending even robot probes four and a half light-years away. The new technology is almost ready to implement. More on that, soon. With luck and perseverance we should know within the next few years whether or not there are planetary candidates worthy of further exploration around the stars of Alpha Centauri.

Or, you know, three-meter tall naked blue people.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A, B, or both A and B

Our next candidate in the Alpha Centauri system is Alpha Centauri A, a G2V star like our own sun. It is about 10% more massive than our sun, but is otherwise the most "sunlike" of any star on our list. It is locked into a binary orbit with the slightly smaller and dimmer Alpha Centauri B, which will be the topic of tomorrow's post.

Alpha Centauri A and B orbit each other in a period of about 80 earth years, during which time they come as close to each other as the sun and Saturn, to as far away from each other as the sun and Pluto. Each has a habitable zone far enough away from the other that it is not seriously affected by the other star. So, theoretically, there may be planets within the habitable zones of both A and B.

Our searches so far have not detected planets around either A or B, which eliminates the possibility of planets any larger than five times as massive as the earth around either star. There is, however, some reason to believe that earthlike planets may have formed (or may have been gravitationally captured) into the habitable zones of these stars. Planets have already been detected orbiting similar binary star systems, such as Gamma Cephei.

For a planet to be a good candidate for human habitability around Alpha Centauri A it would need to be about 1.25 times the earth's distance from the sun. It is possible, based on current modeling, that an earth-sized rocky planet may have formed there. However, it is also possible that no planets have formed around Alpha Centauri A at all. There is also some concern that the absence of a gas giant planet such as Jupiter or Saturn may indicate a lack of cometary activity in the inner star system, which would mean that the planets of both Alphas Centauri could be bone dry. However, the very fact of the binary nature of the system, plus distant Proxima, means that it is likely that either Kuiper Belt comets or Oort Cloud comets are diverted into the inner star system.

As we will see tomorrow, Alpha Centauri B is a much better candidate for a human habitable planet. But the combination of both stars, plus Proxima, makes Alpha Centauri singularly intriguing, even if it didn't happen to be our closest neighbor.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Three stars for the price of one

We now resume our regularly scheduled series on interstellar outmigration, already in progress.

Based of the speed of space travel currently attainable and the length of a human lifetime, with or without currently available methods of suspended animation, there really is only one star system close enough to be reached by a mission crewed with humans. That system is Alpha Centauri. The very good news is, Alpha Centauri is not one star but three. The even better news is, each of those three stars are potential candidates for human-habitable worlds.

We'll consider each of these three stars in turn, beginning with the closest.

Proxima Centauri is the closest star to our sun, as far as we know. When the NASA WISE-mission data is all crunched we may find a brown dwarf star which is nearer, even within our sun's gravitational influence, but a brown dwarf is not much of a candidate for a habitable exoplanet.

Proxima, however, is an M5 class red dwarf. Any planet within the habitable zone of a red dwarf would be tidally locked with the star, meaning just like our moon, one side of the planet would always face the star while the other side always faced away from it. This is not a good scenario for habitability. However, if there happened to be a gas giant or ice giant planet within the habitable zone, a large moon of the planet might well prove habitable. This may prove true for other red dwarf stars, but Proxima has been proven to not have any planets larger than about two earth-masses in circular orbits in its habitable zone, so if there is a habitable moon there it must be around a planet not vastly larger than itself. However, if the planet were only slightly larger than its earth-sized moon, we might not have detected either of them yet. So this is still within the realm of possibility, at the moment.

Another issue for habitability around Proxima (or any red dwarf star) is that most of the starlight is emitted in the infrared spectrum. Terrestrial plants would need to be genetically engineered to optimize photosynthesis from the remaining visible spectrum light. This does not seem to me to be an insurmountable challenge, but genetic engineering is definitely not my field of expertise.

The third difficulty with many red dwarf stars, and Proxima in particular, is that many of them are flare-stars, meaning that they undergo very large periodic stellar flares, similar to solar flares of our own sun. This is problematical because of the physical proximity of the habitable zone to the star. But not necessarily a deal-breaker.

The verdict on Proxima Centauri? Not an especially great candidate for a planet or moon habitable by humans. But a good enough candidate for us to at least slow down and take a look on our way to the two bigger stars of Alpha Centauri.

More on them, beginning tomorrow.

Happy Equinox!

And happy Oestara, and happy Purim, to those who celebrate such! Mmmmmm, hamantaschen!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Perigee Moon

Tomorrow evening's full moon will be within an hour of its perigee, meaning that it will be the closest and biggest-looking full moon since March of 1993. Around the time of sunset and moonrise tomorrow the diameter of the apparent disk of the moon will be 33.6' of arc. The average is about 30', which is about half a centimeter if you were to hold a ruler out at arm's length (if that number seems small to you, measure it yourself, or just try to cover the disk of the full moon with your pinky-nail and you'll see what I mean). The moon looks bigger because it's 50,000 km closer tomorrow than when it is at the farthest away part of its ellipse.

This happens to correspond well to the vernal equinox, which will be at 1621pdt on Sunday the 20th. At the latitude of Seattle, our most extreme seasonal tides occur at the new or full moon nearest the solstices. But in Anchorage AK, for example, the most extreme seasonal tides occur at the new or full moon closest to the equinoxes. So the combination of the moon's perigee, the equinox and the normal monthly spring-tide of the full moon means that the range of tide in Anchorage on Sunday morning will be 36.9 feet, or 11.25 meters. That's a five story building, more or less.

Anyway, it looks like the skies in Seattle should clear up a bit for us to see the moon tomorrow night!

Nuclear Cookies: a winner!

Reader Tennessee was the first to post the correct answer to yesterday's Nuclear Cookie puzzle. Here it is, in Tennessee's words:

Eat the Gamma cookie (least radiation exposure and it will penetrate everything anyway)

Hold the Alpha cookie (cannot penetrate dead skin layer)

Pocket the Beta cookie (won't penetrate cloth)

Throw the Neutron cookie away (worst exposure impact and distance is a must because it will penetrate clothes/skin)


One more point I'd add to Tennessee's answer is that while skin is enough to block an Alpha particle, if an Alpha particle is inhaled, ingested or otherwise penetrates the skin barrier it is very, very dangerous.

I found that this puzzle really helped raise my own understanding of the different types of ionizing radiation, many years ago. Hopefully others will find it useful in sorting out the news reports of the current mess in Japan.

Thanks again to Space Cowgirl for the suggestion!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Nuclear Cookies: a St Patrick's Day puzzle!

Here's a Saint Patricks's Day treat! Four cookies. You can't tell from the photo, but the green is actually glowing.

Okay, this is a puzzle I learned in the US Navy. It's actually a teaching tool used to explain ionizing radiation to non-occupational workers such as myself. Thanks, Space Cowgirl, for the suggestion!

Okay, here's the puzzle:

You have four cookies. Each has inside it a potentially lethal radioactive source of equivalent strength. One cookie is radiating Alpha particles, one is radiating Beta particles, one is radiating Gamma rays and one is radiating Neutrons.

You can: eat one of the cookies, you can hold one of the cookies in your hand, you can put one of the cookies in your pocket, and you can throw one of the cookies away. What do you do?

I'll post the answer in a little while, give it your best shot in the comments!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


They're using helicopters to dump water on the cores and spent rods.
And doing so seems to be lowering the radiation levels, at the moment.

That means that the reactor cores and spent rods are already completely exposed to the open sky.

Amazingly, nobody in the commercial media seems to have made this connection.

ISIS upgrades Fukushima accident to INES 6, possibly 7

The Institute for Science and International Security is (unofficially, as they have no actual jurisdiction in such matters) now assessing the Fukushima reactor accident at INES Level 6, and are publicly stating that if events continue as they are now that it may reach INES Level 7, which until now was reserved only for Chernobyl. ISIS is an anti-nuclear weapons lobby, so that is their bias, but their science is generally quite solid. Regardless of whether you agree with their politics, they are a credible and reputable source for this type of science.

ISIS Statement on Events at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Site in Japan

March 15, 2011

ISIS assesses that the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has worsened considerably. The explosion in the Unit 2 reactor, the third so far, and the fire in the spent fuel pond in the reactor building for Unit 41 means that this accident can no longer be viewed as a level 4 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Events (INES) scale that ranks events from 1 to 7. A level 4 incident involves only local radiological consequences. This event is now closer to a level 6, and it may unfortunately reach a level 7.

A level 6 event means that consequences are broader and countermeasures are needed to deal with the radioactive contamination. A level 7 event would constitute a larger release of radioactive material, and would require further extended countermeasures. The international community should increase assistance to Japan to both contain the emergency at the reactors and to address the wider contamination. We need to find a solution together.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Waterspouts on Alki!

Four small waterspouts were sighted south of Alki Point about 20 minutes ago, around 14:30 pdt.

Some minor tree damage as one of the waterspouts came onto land in the vicinity of Mee Kwa Mooks Park.

No more information at this time, system is moving north up Puget Sound.

Nuclear Power: it's not rocket science

I teach celestial navigation for a living. Some people are intimidated by celestial navigation, but celestial navigation isn't actually especially difficult. The math, which is what intimidates most people, is nothing more than simple arithmetic. Very simple, just adding and subtracting. But you have to do the arithmetic correctly, or you will have a mess on your hands.

I am not a nuclear physicist or a nuclear engineer, but I've worked on nuclear powered ships carrying nuclear weapons for about ten years, and my father worked at the Atomic Energy Commission back when it was still called that. And I teach for a school run by a PhD in nuclear physics. A lot of my friends are nuclear physicists and nuclear engineers. Also, if I may say so, I'm reasonably bright. Over the past 30 years or so I've gleaned a reasonable understanding of how a nuclear reactor works.

It isn't especially sophisticated technology. At the end of the day, it's just a steam engine. The mathematics involved in designing, building and operating a nuclear reactor are not much more than simple arithmetic.

But you have to do the arithmetic correctly, or you will have a mess on your hands.

A couple of days ago I posted about the possibility of earthquake-proofing buildings. If you haven't done so already, please re-read that post. Everything in it applies to nuclear reactors.

Over the past several days I keep reading people stating that the Fukushima reactors were designed to withstand a serious earthquake, but the Sendai earthquake was five times stronger than the designers anticipated. This is true. Here's a hint.

If the actual earthquake that actually hits your reactor is five times stronger than what you built the reactor to withstand, YOU BUILT YOUR REACTOR FIVE TIMES TOO WEAK.

There is no excuse for this. None. You built the reactor in a known earthquake zone. 9-point earthquakes happen. Therefore, build your reactor to withstand a 10-point earthquake. Not seven. That's stupid.

The US Navy has been running nuclear reactors on seagoing vessels for more than half a century without serious incident. Seagoing vessels which on a daily basis withstand far more serious motion than any earthquake will ever create.

"Oh, but after the earthquake the reactors were hit by a Really Big Wave!"

Newsflash. Ships get hit by really big waves all the friggin' time. It's what they're designed for. It's what their reactors are designed for.

Newsflash number two. Tsunamis accompany earthquakes. If you build your reactor close enough to seawater that you are able to use the seawater as your secondary coolant, you need to account for tsunamis.

If you can design a nuclear reactor to withstand the daily rigors of a ship of war at sea, you can damned well design a land-based reactor to withstand a once-in-a-lifetime seismic event.

Oh, but you would have to spend money on that. That might cut into your shareholder's profits.

Congratulations, TEPCO. You did the arithmetic wrong. And now, you have a mess on your hands.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Fukushima: real data, finally

Sifting through the mess of the reporting of the Fukushima reactor crisis and getting real data has been a serious challenge. Probably because the topic of nuclear energy, even on a good day, is so politically and emotionally charged, reporting has ranged from "Oh my god Japan's gonna get nuked again all nuclear power should be stopped immediately!" to "Don't worry, alpha particles are just wee little things that can't hurt you at all; look, see, there are living things around Chernobyl now, it was all just liberal hype!". I finally the found online version of The Japan Times, which gives some real numbers. The numbers aren't great.

So far, the fuel rods of reactor #2 were 100% exposed for 140 minutes. That's bad. That may mean that the fuel rods (the "fuel rods" and "the core" are the same thing, contrary to some reports) have already completely melted.

3130 microsievert per hour AT THE MAIN GATE TO THE FACILITY. (That's 313 millirem for the old-timers; "sieverts" are a measure of biologically equivalent dose so it doesn't matter if the ionizing radiation is alpha, beta, gamma or neutron.) For comparison, 3000 microsieverts per YEAR is typical background radiation. So 3130 microsieverts per HOUR is bad. But congruous with the fact that the USS Ronald Reagan detected significantly higher than normal ionizing radiation 100 miles offshore.

This isn't Chernobyl, yet. But it isn't good. Will continue to update here as new data comes available.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Crisis continues at Fukushima nuclear plant as fuel rods exposed again

A crisis continued Tuesday at the troubled No. 2 reactor at the quake-hit Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, as fuel rods became fully exposed again after workers recovered water levels to cover half of them in a bid to prevent overheating.

The plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., said steam vents of the pressure container of the reactor that houses the rods were closed probably due to the battery problem, raising fears that its core will melt at a faster pace.

The firm said it will first lower the pressure of the reactor by releasing radioactive steam and open the vents with new batteries to resume the operation to inject seawater to cool down the reactor.

Earlier, cooling functions of the reactor failed, causing water levels to sharply fall and fully exposing the fuel rods for about 140 minutes. TEPCO said they could not pour water into the reactor soon as it took time for workers to release steam from the reactor to lower its pressure, the government's nuclear safety agency said.

As TEPCO began pouring coolant water into the reactor, water levels went up at one point to cover more than half of the rods that measure about 4 meters.

Prior to the second full exposure of the rods around 11 p.m. Monday, radiation was detected at 9:37 p.m. at a level twice the maximum seen so far— 3,130 micro sievert per hour — near the main gate of the No. 1 plant, according to TEPCO.

The radiation amount is equivalent to reach by 20 minutes the permissible level for a person in one year.

To ease concerns, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said he believes the problem at the plant "will not develop into a situation similar to the (1986 accident at the atomic power reactor in) Chernobyl" in the Soviet Union, even in the worst case.

Officials of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency also said the worst case scenario will be less destructive than the Chernobyl incident, as TEPCO has depressurized the reactors by releasing radioactive steam.

The utility said a hydrogen explosion at the nearby No. 3 reactor that occurred Monday morning may have caused a glitch in the cooling system of the No. 2 reactor.

Similar cooling down efforts have been made at the plant's No. 1 and No. 3 reactors and explosions occurred at both reactors in the process, blowing away the roofs and walls of the buildings that house the reactors.

Edano denied the possibility that the No. 2 reactor will follow the same path, as the blast at the No. 3 reactor created a gap in the wall of the building that houses the No. 2 reactor. Hydrogen will be released from the space, he said.

However, TEPCO officials did not completely rule out the possibility that a blast will happen, saying hydrogen may have been accumulating while the fuel rods are exposed.

The blast earlier in the day injured 11 people but the reactor's containment vessel was not damaged, with the government dismissing the possibility of a large amount of radioactive material being dispersed, as radiation levels did not jump after the explosion.

TEPCO said seven workers at the site and four members of the Self-Defense Forces were injured in the explosion.

Since the magnitude 9.0 quake hit northeastern Japan last Friday, some reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 plant have lost their cooling functions, leading to brief rises in radiation levels.

As a result, the cores of the No. 1 and No. 3 reactors have partially melted.

TEPCO said the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors at its Fukushima No. 2 plant, which is adjacent to the No. 1 plant, have successfully cooled down to exit critical situations.

The government ordered residents within a 20-kilometer radius of the No. 1 plant to evacuate Saturday in the wake of the initial blast at the plant's No. 1 reactor. A total of 354 people are still attempting to leave the area, according to the nuclear agency.

The agency ruled out the possibility of broadening the area subject to the evacuation order for now.

TEPCO Fukushima status boards

Here are updated status boards of the TEPCO Fukushima reactors.
Sorry about the size of the graphic, but the shrunken version was unreadable.
More on this later, still researching.

Pie are square!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Earthquake-proofing buildings

First off, I want to commend Japan for having done an exemplary job of building their skyscrapers as earthquake-durable as probably any in the world. I also want to commend Japan on their earthquake early warning system. One minute doesn't seem like much of a head start, but it probably meant the survival of many more people than otherwise would have.

However, I would like to posit that it is entirely possible to create buildings which are, for all intents and purposes, entirely earthquake proof.

Imagine, if you will, a luxury hotel with a capacity for 6000+ guests, park-courtyards, playgrounds, swimming pools, restaurants, day-spas and gymnasiums, movie theaters, performance arenas, casinos, shops, and many other recreation facilities.

Now, imagine an earthquake so severe that the ground directly beneath this hotel was violently lifted to a 30° angle. Now imagine that the hotel is lifted violently in the opposite direction an equal or greater amount. And then again from another direction. And another. And another. Imagine that instead of lasting for a few seconds or a few minutes, this violent shifting of the ground beneath the hotel lasts for days, or weeks. Sometimes the entire hotel heaves up suddenly by 10 meters or more, sometimes it falls into a similar sized hole made by the shifting earth, sometimes it slides up or down hills forming and unforming beneath its foundation.

And as this happens, the hotel staff and guests go about their business, mostly unperturbed. The walls do not break, the windows do not break, the floors and ceilings do not crumple. Poorly stowed objects may fall to the floor, unsecured furniture may move about, an elderly patron may stumble and injure a wrist. But that is all.

Such buildings already exist. They are called SHIPS.

There is no reason that a building on land cannot be built with the same techniques that shipbuilders have used for centuries. It is no more expensive than building a ship of the same size, and a land-based hotel has the added advantage of no fuels costs for propulsion. Really, we can do this. And in areas which are prone to serious earthquakes, we need to seriously consider it.

Because people who live on the coasts tend to vote Democrat anyway

I'm sorry. I think I just threw up in my mouth.


Proposed GOP budget cuts target tsunami warning centers

CBS News -- The GOP budget plan that passed through the House last month aimed to cut funding for a tsunami warning center that issued a slew of warnings around Japan's devastating earthquake.

The budget, which proposed about $60 billion in budget cuts, would slash funding for the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). That would potentially cripple the effectiveness of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii, which issued a series of warnings over the past several days regarding the situation in Japan, where an 8.9 magnitude earthquake triggered a massive tsunami along the nation's east coast. (The PTWC is a part of the National Weather Service, which falls under the umbrella of NOAA - the organization responsible for providing tsunami warnings in the U.S.)

The Republican's proposed "continuing resolution" to fund the government, which was defeated in the Senate this week, aimed to cut $1.2 billion - or 21 percent - of President Obama's proposed budget for NOAA, reports.

In an interview with Hawaii's Star Advertiser last month, Barry Hirshorn, Pacific region chairman of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, warned that the proposed budget cuts could result in the loss of lives.

"People could die. ... It could be serious," he said, noting that Weather Service employees and employees of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center could be hit with furloughs and closures.

"It would impact our ability to issue warnings," he added.

Democratic Rep. Colleen Hanabusa of Hawaii called the proposed cuts "reckless."

"Drastically reducing the ... ability to forecast weather and alert our communities about imminent, dangerous events is irresponsible," she said.

Dan Sobien, the National Weather Service's union president, said in a statement to Think Progress that GOP cuts would put "considerable stress" on national tsunami monitoring and response capabilities.

"NOAA has put together part of a contingency plan to handle such a massive cut and while it spares tsunami buoys, all other coastal buoys are non funded and there will be furloughs at both Tsunami Warning Centers (TWC)," he said. "These furloughs will take away the TWC's ability to upgrade tsunami models and will put considerable stress on watchstanders ability to react."

"While today's disaster is of particular concern to everyone, we are just now entering tornado season and soon will be hurricane season and our organization firmly believes any effort to defund and dismantle our nations early warning system for all disasters is very unwise," he added.

Congress has yet to pass a final budget for fiscal year 2011, and Republicans and Democrats continue to spar over the extent to which domestic programs will be cut.

Senator Jay Rockefeller, D-WVA and Chairman of Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, is urging Congress not to make significant cuts to NOAA's core weather and essential prediction services in upcoming negotiations over the budget.

"Congress must heed this cruel wakeup call and stop proposed cuts to essential NOAA prediction programs that would endanger lives," he said in a statement Friday. "We must push to make the smart investments in our greatest minds and resources at NOAA so that we can better predict severe weather events and be prepared for the worst."

Possible Meltdown at Fukushima Number 1

This isn't good. Hopefully not a Chernobyl level "this isn't good", but already worse than a Three Mile Island "this isn't good".
Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the people of Sendai.

This from Nikkei:


Meltdown Caused Nuke Plant Explosion: Safety Body

TOKYO (Nikkei)--The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) said Saturday afternoon the explosion at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant could only have been caused by a meltdown of the reactor core.

The same day, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (9501), which runs the plant, began to flood the damaged reactor with seawater to cool it down, resorting to measures that could rust the reactor and force the utility to scrap it.

Cesium and iodine, by-products of nuclear fission, were detected around the plant, which would make the explosion the worst accident in the roughly 50-year history of Japanese nuclear power generation.

An explosion was heard near the plant's No. 1 reactor about 3:30 p.m. and plumes of white smoke went up 10 minutes later. The ceiling of the building housing the reactor collapsed, according to information obtained by Fukushima prefectural authorities.

At a news conference Saturday night, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano discounted the possibility of a significant leak of radioactive material from the accident. "The walls of the building containing the reactor were destroyed, meaning that the metal container encasing the reactor did not explode," Edano said.

The amount of radiation detected inside the plant after 4:00 p.m. slightly exceeded the dose people can safely receive in a year, according to information obtained by the Fukushima prefectural government.

The No. 1 reactor shut down automatically soon after a massive earthquake hit the area Friday, but its emergency core cooling system failed to cool the reactor's core sufficiently.

NISA is affiliated with the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

(The Nikkei March 13 edition)

Friday, March 11, 2011

Sea Monkeys in Space

In July of 2005 a baby girl named Laina Beasley was born to a family in California. Her birth was remarkable only in that she had been conceived 13 years earlier, and then frozen to -235°C.

Earlier in 2005 Dr Mark Roth at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center here in Seattle induced suspended animation in mice for six hours by introducing them to an atmosphere containing 60 ppm hydrogen sulfide combined with external cooling. There's a really thought-provoking TED Talk about his work here:

Human ova can remain fertile when frozen for more than a year, and human sperm can remain fertile when frozen for more than 12 years. In 2008 Hiroshi Suzuki successfully transplanted a previously frozen ova of a Labrador Retriever into another in order to preserve the genetic material of guide dogs, which are otherwise sterilized before they reach sexual maturity.

Artemia salina, the brine shrimp sold as Sea Monkeys, are able to survive for years in cryptobiosis, during which time they can survive extremes of temperature ranging from −190°C to 105°C for short periods of time. All this without human intervention, other than the school children providing the 105°C environments, with or without adult supervision. In an environment with no humidity and no oxygen they can remain in stasis for up to two years; in a more benign environment they seem to be able to survive indefinitely, like plant seeds.

So. This is where the science of suspended animation stands right now. Mark Roth disclaimers at the beginning of his talk that he isn't interested in using his techniques to extend the range of human space exploration. I happen to be.

But right now, it looks like about an additional 20 years is the most we can do. I'm actually guardedly optimistic that we are making such rapid advances in this field that we may see this number expand to a century or more, in which case all of the stars on my previous list may be within the reach of human colonists.

This would afford us gains in the distance a vessel could travel, but it would still need to be large enough to sustain an ongoing non-hibernating population of all of the colonists, human and otherwise. Because if the colonists reached their destination star and there was NOT a suitable candidate world for colonization, the vessel which brought them would need to sustain them, and their descendants, possibly forever.

But right now, with the suspended animation technology we currently possess we could extend the the reach of a single generation to Barnard's Star. Only. And Barnard's Star, frankly, isn't that interesting of a candidate.

So, Alpha Centauri it is, for now. In the next few posts we'll look more closely at our nearest stellar neighbor, what we might expect to find there, what the trip there might entail, and how we might make that a future home for some of our descendants.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Now class, say it with me: "From Hell's heart, I stab at thee!"

Okay, cheap shot, and I'm certain he's heard it before. But, man, low-hanging fruit...

Sal Khan and his associates have created something called "The Khan Academy". What it is, in his own words:

A free world-class education for anyone anywhere.

The Khan Academy is an organization on a mission. We're a not-for-profit with the goal of changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education to anyone anywhere.

All of the the site's resources are available to anyone. It doesn't matter if you are a student, teacher, home-schooler, principal, adult returning to the classroom after 20 years, or a friendly alien just trying to get a leg up in earthly biology. The Khan Academy's materials and resources are available to you completely free of charge.

There's really nothing more to say to this. This is a university education in science and mathematics absolutely free of charge. No ads, no fees, absolutely available free of charge to students and educators alike. And the quality of the material is very high. Oh, they do accept donations, but they don't brow-beat you for them. It's a pretty damned worthy cause, I think.

Oh, amazingly enough, all of the 2,000+ videos currently available were researched and taught by one (really effing brilliant) individual.

Incidentally, this is the second or third time in the past 24 hours I've seen the internet used in really incredible ways for the greater good of all.

Kudos to Sal Khan and his team!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

General Strike in Wisconsin

This member of the Inlandboatmen's Union of the Pacific stands proudly beside the Wisconsin Public Service Workers.

Tiger, tiger, burning bright

Typically, in astronomy, "The Great Silence" refers to the (not actually surprising) lack of intelligent radio transmissions emanating from the nearby stars.

Today it apparently refers to the lack of intelligent or otherwise radio transmissions emanating from the commercial media regarding the NASA announcement of a high energy heat source on Saturn's moon Enceladus.

By "commercial media" I mean CNN, BBC, Fox and even Weekly World News. I gave up the search after WWN, although I was pleased to learn there that space aliens have been ditching the bodies of human abductees onto the surface of the moon, minus their bones. How DO they keep scooping larger news agencies like the BBC?

Anyway, none of the news outlets I checked had picked up the NASA story (the real one). Given the incredible opportunity this story presents for each of the media outlets to royally eff it up in their own special way, I was inclined to give NASA credit for cleverly hiding the story in plain sight and wording it so blandly that the media didn't notice it. But that would imply that the NASA press corp was "clever", and so far the available data does not fit that hypothesis very well.

My next hypothesis was that the news outlets did read the story and understand its implications, but were taking the responsible path of allowing the information to trickle into the public's consciousness in its own time. Then I remembered that I had included Fox News in my list.

The only conclusion I was left with was that the science editors of the various media really genuinely didn't understand the importance or the implications of the press release. So, allow me to break it down into itty bitty words for the journalists.

Saturn has a tiny moon called Enceladus. "Tiny" as in about 500 kilometers, or about 300 miles, in diameter. For comparison, if Enceladus happened to be sitting on Ellensburg WA, the sphere of the moon would reach to Aberdeen WA to the west, Pullman WA to the east, Warm Springs OR to the south and nearly to Chilliwack BC to the north. So, "tiny" as far as moons go, but you wouldn't want to have to store it in your basement.

Enceladus has an ice mantle which is about 5km thick, which is much thinner than the ice mantles of the Jovian moons. Beneath that is a salt water ocean, which happens to be rich in simple organic chemicals.

Now, here's the rub. Enceladus should be frozen solid. There really isn't a logical reason why the interior of Enceladus is warm enough to melt the ice. There are two standard candidates for this, the first being tidal expansion and contraction from the gravitational relationship with Saturn and Dione (another of Saturn's moons), and the second being radioactive decay of superheavy metals within the rocky interior of Enceladus. Neither of these explanations hold much water.

Mimas, yet another of Saturn's moons, is closer still to Saturn but frozen stone cold solid. And you wouldn't really expect a world with a gravity 0.01 times that of earth to have made very much uranium.

Furthermore, Enceladus' heat does not seem to be evenly distributed around the globe, but concentrated in one single very small area. A tidally induced underwater volcano might account for this, but we would expect that to be situated near the equator, either facing or opposing Saturn (like our own moon, Enceladus is tidally locked with Saturn, with the same side always facing the planet). However, it turns out that our lone hot-spot is precisely at the south pole.

Still, knowing that there was in fact a hot-spot, scientists computed the absolute maximum heat output which could be generated by a combination of tidal dynamics and radioactive decay. The very generous number they arrived at was 1.4 gigawatts.

The hot-spot is called the "tiger stripes", because it is a region of four nearly parallel and evenly spaced trenches, each about 80 miles long by 1 mile wide. Cassini recently measured the heat from the tiger stripes as 15.8 gigawatts. More than ten times the maximum which could be generated by any known natural phenomenon.

So, what are we looking at here?

The official SWAG (stupid wild-assed guess) from NASA and JPL is that it is a somehow anomalous flareup that Cassini just happened to capture. The problem with this is that the original 1.4 gigawatt number was the anomalous flareup. So we can probably throw that one out. That leaves us with two possibilities. Either we're seeing a previously unknown natural phenomenon, or we're seeing a previously unknown artificial phenomenon. Either way we're going to need a lot more data and a lot more research. And suddenly Saturn's moon system looks a lot more interesting.

Cassini finds 15.8 gigawatt energy source on Enceladus

Here is the link from the NASA story. Will post much more later, class starting in a couple of minutes.

The commercial media doesn't seem to have picked this up yet. When they do, they will make a mess out of it. Here's the full NASA press release, minus graphics:


Cassini Finds Enceladus is a Powerhouse

PASADENA, Calif. – Heat output from the south polar region of Saturn's moon Enceladus is much greater than was previously thought possible, according to a new analysis of data collected by NASA's Cassini spacecraft. The study was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research on March 4.

Data from Cassini's composite infrared spectrometer of Enceladus' south polar terrain, which is marked by linear fissures, indicate that the internal heat-generated power is about 15.8 gigawatts, approximately 2.6 times the power output of all the hot springs in the Yellowstone region, or comparable to 20 coal-fueled power stations. This is more than an order of magnitude higher than scientists had predicted, according to Carly Howett, the lead author of study, who is a postdoctoral researcher at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., and a composite infrared spectrometer science team member.

"The mechanism capable of producing the much higher observed internal power remains a mystery and challenges the currently proposed models of long-term heat production," said Howett.

It has been known since 2005 that Enceladus' south polar terrain is geologically active and the activity is centered on four roughly parallel linear trenches, 130 kilometers (80 miles) long and about 2 kilometers (1 mile) wide, informally known as the "tiger stripes." Cassini also found that these fissures eject great plumes of ice particles and water vapor continually into space. These trenches have elevated temperatures due to heat leaking out of Enceladus' interior.

A 2007 study predicted the internal heat of Enceladus, if principally generated by tidal forces arising from the orbital resonance between Enceladus and another moon, Dione, could be no greater than 1.1 gigawatts averaged over the long term. Heating from natural radioactivity inside Enceladus would add another 0.3 gigawatts.

The latest analysis, which also involved the composite infrared spectrometer team members John Spencer at Southwest Research Institute, and John Pearl and Marcia Segura at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., uses observations taken in 2008, which cover the entire south polar terrain. They constrained Enceladus' surface temperatures to determine the region's surprisingly high output.

A possible explanation of the high heat flow observed is that Enceladus' orbital relationship to Saturn and Dione changes with time, allowing periods of more intensive tidal heating, separated by more quiescent periods. This means Cassini might be lucky enough to be seeing Enceladus when it's unusually active.

The new, higher heat flow determination makes it even more likely that liquid water exists below Enceladus' surface, Howett noted.

Recently, scientists studying ice particles ejected from the plumes discovered that some of the particles are salt-rich, and are probably frozen droplets from a saltwater ocean in contact with Enceladus' mineral-rich rocky core. The presence of a subsurface ocean, or perhaps a south polar sea between the moon's outer ice shell and its rocky interior would increase the efficiency of the tidal heating by allowing greater tidal distortions of the ice shell.

"The possibility of liquid water, a tidal energy source and the observation of organic (carbon-rich) chemicals in the plume of Enceladus make the satellite a site of strong astrobiological interest," Howett said.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The CIRS team is based at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., where the instrument was built.

Monday, March 7, 2011

88 Years

The Orion pulsed-fission starship will be able to attain and maintain speeds of 5% of the speed of light, or about 15,000 kilometers per second. This is the fastest speed which a crewed or uncrewed vessel may be propelled with current technology and resources (it is theoretically possible for a vessel which constantly accelerates throughout an interstellar journey to go much faster, but there isn't enough fissionable material in the solar system to sustain this). More, it may well prove to be the fastest speed practical regardless of any advances in propulsion technology. For example, a grain of sand striking an object traveling at 12% of the speed of light will release the energy of a hydrogen bomb. Which would, in the words of Han Solo, "end your trip real quick".

So, 5% of the speed of light. From earth to Alpha Centauri in a mere 88 years. 88 years is a long time, in the scale of a human lifetime. Current human life expectancy world-wide is 67 years, but varies greatly by region. The longest national life expectancy on earth right now is nearly 90 years, in the Principality of Monaco, which speaks well to my retirement plans. In the extreme, the actual human lifespan is constrained by the Hayflick Limit of about 50 cycles of cellular mitosis, which translates to about 121 years. Jeanne Calment of France lived to be 122 years and 164 days old, but she is definitely the upper bracket.

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that through a combination of eugenics, medicine, and rigorously controlled diet, regimen and environment, that we can guarantee that an entire crew will live to an age of 120 years. Let us also assume that, through an extraordinary but not inconceivable training regimen, all of the crew could be trained to complete the first part of their mission by the age of 14, and then would launch at this time. 102 years from the moment of their births the crew would reach Alpha Centauri, old but spry with another good 18 years left in them to explore the star system.

This seems pretty far-fetched for a number of reasons. But it does demonstrate that it is theoretically possible, with existing technology, for a single generation of humans to reach and explore the three nearest stars, including Proxima.

The next nearest star, Barnard's Star, at 118 years is just beyond the reach of a human generation. The next star beyond that, Wolf 359, is 156 years.

But, still, three stars, two of which are pretty decent candidates for habitable (or at least terraformable) planets, and a third which is at least possible, isn't a bad dice roll. If there was only going to be one other star system within our relatively easy reach, we could have done a helluva lot worse.

In point of fact, unless we choose to use some form of suspended animation (several of which are already possible, more on this in an upcoming post, soon), the first generation or generations of crew will get busy creating the next generations of crew rather soon into the flight. We don't need to make elaborate plans to create "generation ships"; nature will take care of that part all by itself. Because the ship will be a completely closed ecosystem for the entirety of the journey, populations of all species on board will need to be closely regulated. But in the end, there will be plenty of young people to colonize any worlds found around the Alpha Centauri stars.

This method could also be used to reach Barnard's Star, if there were compelling evidence of habitable planets or moons there. But that seems fairly unlikely.

It is not, however, reasonable to expect entire generations to live out their lives and die in a tin can in hopes that their descendants might one day colonize a distant star. To go further than Alpha Centauri or Barnard's Star, a different method is needed. The next post will explore possibilities of suspended animation.

Let's get the captain his money

A couple weeks ago it was announced that Joss Whedon's Firefly would be re-run on the Science Channel. During a promotional interview for the re-release actor Nathan Fillion made the off-hand comment that if he were to win a $300 million lottery he'd restart the show himself. In the category of "be careful of what you wish for", since he made that comment former Firefly writers Jane Espenson and Jose Molina and actress Jewel Staite have already thrown their hats into the ring, and fans have set up an internet pledge site to raise the revenue. The idea is pretty cool; people submit whatever they're willing to pledge, but no money changes hands until Fillion, Whedon or someone of that caliber steps in and takes the reins.

Personally I'd love to see Firefly come back, but I'm almost more intrigued to see how the internet and other social networking are facilitating that without bothering to check in with, say, 20th Century Fox, which owns the rights to the franchise. Change the medium and you change the message, change the messaging and you change the media.

Governments and corporations are learning the hard way that the transparency of the internet cuts in both directions; that which allows governments to spy on its citizens also allows citizens to spy on their governments. Every individual with access to a cell-phone could be the next Julian Assange; the hydra has seven billion heads. We're already seeing this topple governments in places like Egypt, Libya and Wisconsin. Now we may be seeing corporations being outflanked as well.

Interesting times.

Oh, the link to the website to help Nathan Fillion buy the rights to Firefly is: